I arrived at James Stephens' old pitch in Larchfield just after 9.0am. I was fresh and well rested because I was asleep just after midnight. I rang in the New Year with Clare but as 2015 segued into 2016, I was already resetting my body-clock and mind to prepare for what I hoped a new season would bring.
It was cold and frosty. Air temperatures were close to zero. A blanket of frost had coated the ground like icing sugar so I stamped my feet along both 20-metre lines, my footprints acting as markers for the starting and finishing points for a set of runs designed to punish my muscles and unleash torture on my mind.
I was fully ready for the pain. I wanted it. I needed to feel that burn, almost as a reminder of the hurt of missing out on the 2015 All-Ireland final, as another mental note of never wanting to miss out on that kind of action again.
I won my ninth All-Ireland medal that day but I played no part in the match. That admission may sound vulgar to so many players who would kill for just one All-Ireland medal but that is who I am. That's the kind of wild ambition and selfishness which has made us who we are in Kilkenny. Henry Shefflin is the only GAA player in history with ten All-Ireland medals. And I desperately want to join him.
The rest of the Kilkenny squad are in Thailand since the end of December celebrating that success on our team holiday. Clare couldn't get time off from work in January so the two of us went on the same break in November. It suited me down to the ground because it granted me the time to do some extra work during those two weeks. I was in the gym in Nowlan Park one afternoon over Christmas when I spotted an image on Snapchat of the boys drinking and going mad on a boat. My muscles were screaming for respite with how hard I was pushing myself but the picture provided the rocket fuel for me to drive myself even harder. "I'll be ready for these boys when they come back," I said to myself. "I'll just blow them out of the water when the hard running begins in a couple of weeks."
This is the start of it now for me. I didn't have anyone there to push or encourage me. That didn't matter. The stopwatch on my phone was my timer, which wasn't ideal, but I wasn't worried about split-seconds for now. At this stage, it's about getting the legs pumping, the lungs opened up and storing some juice in the tank for the long-haul journey ahead.
I was sluggish. By now, I know my usual times for those runs Kilkenny do between both 20-metre lines. My January time is normally 18 seconds. By February, I'd usually be clocking 17. Sixteen seconds is my ultimate target for the summer but I'm almost four seconds off that time now. My average recording over the series of sprints was 19.5. My lungs were screaming for oxygen. The lactic acid was piercing my muscles but I still felt great. Energised. Alive.
I haven't felt that way since the 2015 Leinster final but even that day carried as asterisk. I was taken off against Galway. I was bull-thick and mad keen to prove myself again before the All-Ireland semi-final against Waterford.
Three weeks out from the match, I was marking Mark Kelly in a training game. It was a typical Nowlan Park match, raw and sparky. I was already on edge so I was like a powder keg waiting to explode. I did when Mark hit me a sneaky slap on the hand.
I turned around and pulled head high on him. It was probably the worst stroke I ever pulled on anyone. It was mean and dangerous. Brian Cody went bananas.
I had pulled plenty of loose strokes in training over the years and Brian would have just signalled his disapproval by calling my name with the tone of an exclamation mark. "Jaaackie!" This time, he stopped the game and cut me in two.
"Don't ever fucking do that again," he roared.
I was so thick that I never turned around. I just kept walking.
"Jackie, get back here."
I faced towards Brian. "If you ever do that again, I'll fire you out that gate and you won't be back."
Brian normally never loses the rag in a match to that extent but he was still in my ear after training. "You can't be carrying on like that," he said. "You're no good to anyone on the sideline. Because that's where you'll be if you pull like that again." I was still trying to justify my actions, for which I had no defence. "Brian, you didn't see the stroke Mark pulled beforehand."
"I don't care," said Brian. "I'll have a word with Mark. I know you're probably a little frustrated that you're not going as well as you'd like but you'll be playing the next day against Waterford. And I need you to be ready."